The fast-flowing stream of foreign artists attracted to life in China includes many Australians, writes Brendan Shanahan
WITH his black Le Corbusier glasses and shabby sheepskin coat, a cigarette dangling permanently from his lips, Laurens Tan looks every bit the artist. In his studio in Beijing, surrounded by his bright pop art sculptures, the former academic and rock ’ n’ roll bass player talks about why he made the shift from his home in Sydney to Beijing.
‘‘ After 28 years working as an artist and an academic I wanted to see where I could go that could be liberating. I didn’t want to conform to a system; I wanted to go somewhere that was open-ended and openminded,’’ says Tan, 60, who was impressed by the lively eclecticism of China’s art scene, unburdened by the often homogenising constraints of Western contemporary art. ‘‘ Beijing just happened to be it.’’
Tan, who is exhibiting at Sydney’s Bondi Junction at present (the show closes tonight), was born in The Netherlands, the child of Chinese Indonesians, and grew up in northern NSW. Although he says he was inspired to some extent by a ‘‘ curiosity about my heritage’’, Tan’s move to Beijing is part of a broader trend. In recent years China has seen a rapid influx of foreign artists, most based in Beijing. It’s an unprecedented shift: for the first time since the colonial period, artists from the West are moving to Asia to make their fortunes.
This time, however, they’re doing it on their host nation’s terms. The attractions of Beijing to artists are obvious: enormous, cheap studios in a sophisticated metropolis, access to world art markets, a constant stream of stimulating company, a ‘‘ can do’’ attitude and the chance to dig into an ancient and rapidly changing culture.
The problems are sometimes just as obvious: homes and studios can be demolished to make way for new developments with little notice or restitution, the Chinese gallery scene is radically different from that in the West, the work of foreign artists has a very limited commercial market and Beijing is hardly Paris in the springtime. Despite this, artists from Australia and across the world continue to arrive.
Tony Scott is an artist, curator and founder of China Art Projects, a Beijing gallery and cultural exchange program. ‘‘ I got hooked on Beijing,’’ says Scott, who relocated four years ago but has been visiting since 1994. He believes the trend for foreign artists to move to China will only grow. ‘‘ There’s a steady stream coming here to work. In the old days they would all leave after a period, but now there are people staying longer and there are people who have been quietly working here for longer than we would assume.’’
The motives of artists coming to China vary. Alex Gibson, 32, is an internet and
conceptual artist who finished art school in Melbourne and relocated to China earlier this year. He was attracted to the culture of modern China and soon found himself drawn into Beijing’s cosmopolitan art scene. ‘‘ There are far more foreign artists here than in Australia,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s amazing to be exposed to that. This is one of the global megapolises. On a cultural exchange level, it’s incredibly diverse and cosmopolitan.’’
Richard Lee, 40, is a figurative painter originally from Tamworth, NSW. His move to China was spurred by a fascination with Taoism and other Eastern philosophies. ‘‘ I think a lot of people came here because they were thinking in terms of art career and the scene here. I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was just following another interest in the philosophical thinking about painting. And the best thing was that what I found here was not what I expected. I spent a lot more time involved with contemporary art fairs and doing performance art, which wasn’t what I expected at all.’’
Like many other artists who have made the move to China, Lee is excited by the global opportunities the country offers: a French curator visited his first solo show and he is now represented in Paris, where he has had sell-out exhibitions. He believes such good fortune would have been unlikely in Australia. Of course, it hasn’t been all good times: in 2008 he was bitten by a dog, got frostbite on his feet while working in his freezing studio and had half his face paralysed by a mysterious illness. When he took up English teaching to pay for his crippling hospital bills, he lost several months’ wages when the school’s director disappeared after the global financial crisis.
Still, Lee’s love affair with Beijing continues. ‘‘ I think you get suckered in by that horribleness. When I got sick, people said, ‘ Why didn’t you just come home?’ And I really don’t know. You just get a bit fascinated, even by the freezing cold winter.’’
One big attraction of China for foreign artists is the ability to manufacture largescale works in hi-tech or traditional materials, the kind of expensive production normally out of reach back home. Many cite this as a motive for coming to China, although the rising cost of living is starting to lessen the attraction. ‘‘ I didn’t come here because of the ease of manufacture,’’ Tan says. ‘‘ A lot of Chinese manufacturers now go to India, Thailand, Vietnam, Africa to get things made because it’s cheaper.’’
And price is not the only factor to consider, especially when producing delicate works of art to exacting standards. Although he often employs entire villages of fibreglass casters and spray painters, Tan has struggled with quality control.
‘‘ My first solo show [in China] was in May 2008 and I had it up and running in four months, from scratch. I had something like 36 objects and they were all made within a period of three months, which is pretty amazing. But I spent most of the time policing and regulating what was being done. And what I didn’t police closely enough I’m paying for now by having to remake the work. Quality is a big issue.’’
Denise Keele-bedford, 59, has been commuting between China and Australia for almost 10 years and loves being able to make large-scale works using the skills of local lacquerware craftsmen. Like Tan, however, she has experienced problems, exacerbated by her frequent trips home. ‘‘ It can be very frustrating,’’ she says of her relationship with craftsmen. ‘‘ As soon as I leave they tend to forget about me. There’s a sense that, ‘ Oh, I should be there. I should be on top of it, reminding them I still want the work done.’ I can’t quite leave it for them to finish.’’
Despite the irritations and occasional hardships of life in China — her first studio was demolished with only a month’s notice — Keele-bedford finds life in the capital and the opportunities it brings worth it. ‘‘ I was invited to do an installation with Shanghai Fashion Week last year. They looked at the website and said: ‘ We like this, can you do that?’ It was a rather difficult installation and they said: ‘ Well, what are your requirements? We’ll give you what you need.’ And they did.’’ Such things keep her going back.
One of the most senior artists to make the move is Jayne Dyer, who has exhibited in institutions across Australia, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Britain. She first went to China in 1994, moving there permanently in 2007: the attraction was immediate. Dyer speaks of the intense energy that comes from being in a country going through ‘‘ extreme change’’. ‘‘ And for [art] practice it creates a lot of questions: about the relationship between social and political art, about the relationship between economy and culture.’’
Like Tan and Keele-bedford, Dyer works with local fabricators on large-scale sculptures and installations. Not only can she make works on a scale beyond her means in Australia, China has given her many more opportunities. ‘‘ I do commissions in Australia but the commissions in China, there’s no doubt it’s a bigger market — China, Hong Kong and now India as well.’’
Dyer says being physically available in China is a necessity, not only because of geographic convenience but because personal connections and introductions are central to all aspects of Chinese culture, especially in business. ‘‘ I got a call two days ago from a consultant in Hong Kong to do another big development. I can fly there tomorrow, look at the site, take photos and then put in what I think would be a good layout. Of course I could still do it from Australia but it would be much more difficult, both in time and cost.’’
For all the exciting opportunities China can offer an artist, Beijing can’t yet be said to be a true global art hub. ‘‘ Some artists want to come here because they want to have experience overseas,’’ Dyer says. ‘‘ But the shows they may have are quite different to the shows they have in their own country. The idea of a Westerner thinking they’re going to build a trajectory of commercial shows, leading to museum shows and critical appraisal, isn’t the same here.
‘‘ The commercial structure is sound, particularly for Chinese artists. But the museum and education structure is still emerging. Even within tertiary education for the arts, it’s still traditional with the topdown approach. It’s only now that is being readdressed.’’
With such a large community of artists living in countless artists’ villages throughout the capital, Beijing on the surface would seem to be what author Peter Hall calls a ‘‘ cultural crucible’’, analogous to Paris at the turn of the 20th century or New York after World War II. Unlike in those great capitals, however, Chinese modern art grew out of specifically Chinese circumstances: the Cultural Revolution, its aftermath and China’s modernisation. For foreigners to participate fully in that seems impossible.
With his transnational background, Tan is used to feeling like an outsider. In a place like New York, he says, his blurred cultural identity may not be an issue, but the nature of the Chinese art market demands more simplistic definitions. ‘‘ One of the problems with Chinese contemporary art is that it did well by virtue of its uniqueness, its branding. Which means it’s defined by its Chinese-ness. So if it’s not as ‘ Chinese’, it’s not as much part of the contemporary Chinese art scene.’’
Michael Yuen, 28, is an emerging artist, originally from Adelaide. His work often involves performance and installations, including The Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art, in which he led a donkey loaded with books through the streets of Beijing, and Follow, a performance in which he pays crowds of people to follow him. Unlike Tan, Yuen, whose parents are Chinese from Hong Kong and Indonesia, is not curious about exploring his ethnic ancestry; his interest lies more in millennial urbanism. His assessment of the Beijing art scene is surprisingly blunt.
‘‘ I don’t think the art scene here is that interesting. It was a hive of activity; that doesn’t make it interesting. What is interesting is the city itself and the crossroads it’s at. People know that the last generation of artists have made their contribution and they’ve opened the field for a younger generation to play, and the younger generation of artists hasn’t brought those ideas on to the scene. Maybe the ideas aren’t there.’’
Whether the Beijing art scene has the intellectual backbone necessary to be a global art centre is perhaps irrelevant considering how much money it is turning over. In less than 10 years China has seen mind-boggling growth in its art market. The GFC scared speculators off and prices for mid-range contemporary artists crashed, but the recent sale of the Baron Guy Ullens collection signalled a recovery: several artists broke auction records and an early triptych by Zhang Xiaogang went for $US10 million. According to art-tracking database artprice.com, China has just edged ahead of the US to become the world’s biggest market.
But despite the game-changing growth, foreign artists cannot expect much commercial benefit: Chinese buyers, mostly, are not looking to buy works by foreigners and most international buyers and curators have come to China looking for Chinese artists.
‘‘ Chinese collectors, in terms of contemporary art, especially since 2008, are very wary of anything other than blue-chip stock,’’ says Reg Newitt, a curator with CAP. ‘‘ There aren’t a lot of art critics and genuine art writers up here. It would be hard to say that Australian artists get a lot of international reputation through the Chinese community. It’s more likely they’ll try to pick up a reputation back in Australia by association of being up here and working.’’
The way the Chinese market works can also frustrate artists accustomed to the standard Western gallery stable system.
‘‘ I think you have to accept that there is not the gallery or museum scene in China that there is in the West,’’ Scott says. ‘‘ Chinese artists have traditionally handled their own art career; they broker their own deals. Galleries, when they try to establish themselves, have to work out that following a Western plan is not going to work. Galleries that show artists may not be exclusive dealers. The auction houses have huge sway, perhaps more than anyone. Almost anything goes. It’s almost the Wild East.’’
One person qualified to discuss the Wild East of the Chinese art market is Australian Brian Wallace. In 1984 Wallace arrived in China as a backpacker. In 1991 he opened Red Gate Gallery, China’s first commercial gallery. More than any individual, Wallace has been responsible for the present crop of Australian artists moving to China. For the past 10 years his gallery has offered the Red Gate Residency, a program that sets up artists with studio space and contacts in Beijing. All the artists interviewed for this article have done a Red Gate Residency.
Despite being friends with almost every Australian artist in China, and occasionally exhibiting work by some, such as Tan, Wallace doesn’t represent any foreign-born artists. He says most local buyers have almost no knowledge of non-Chinese contemporary art. Indeed, it’s only in the past couple of years most have embraced contemporary art from their own country.
He adds the mainland Chinese art market offers little incentive to show or sell nonChinese art. ‘‘ If you want to import a work of art you have to pay a 30 per cent or 40 per cent customs duty. So anyone participating in an art fair has to load in that tax. Whereas in Hong Kong it’s virtually tax-free.’’
There is also the elephant in the room: censorship, especially pertinent as the Chinese government cracks down on artists and intellectuals such as outspoken artist and architect Ai Weiwei, who was arrested in April. ‘‘ Even though society has become very free and open, when it comes to very specific cultural areas, they’re a bit more worried,’’ Wallace says. ‘‘ There’s censorship of the art fairs, censorship of [gallery complex] 798, censorship where we are [at Red Gate], and also any foreign work coming in. If you’re talking about political issues that are sensitive in China, you will come into some trouble.’’
Yuen is keen to emphasise he has had little direct experience of state-sponsored censorship in China. Even though plainclothes police officers visit his exhibitions, their exchanges have been cordial. One even shared a beer with him. Despite this, Yuen believes there is constant, almost subconscious censorship of art.
‘‘ The degree to which a museum will censor you before the work gets to the state and the degree that you will censor what you do before it gets to the museum or gallery is significant,’’ he says.
In 2008, Yuen staged a performance of Follow in Shanghai. The museum sponsoring the event told him to halve his desired 100 participants for fear it would be mistaken as a ‘‘ gathering’’, dangerous when the state was cracking down on anything that might interrupt the glorious Olympics.
Despite these brushes with authority, Yuen points out Australia is not without its own state-sponsored absurdities. ‘‘ There were two attempts to put a Follow on in Australia. The organisation I was working with wanted security guards to monitor the crowd. And the insurance company said, ‘ We can’t find a way to insure [the performance].’ ’’ The project never happened.
Tan is unsure how much longer he should stay in China. ‘‘ To be honest, I still ask the question, ‘ Why the f . . k am I here?’ It’s not an easy life, though some suffer more than others. I’ve been here almost five years and China has changed a lot.’’ Yet despite his reservations Tan still believes his time there has yet to come to an end.
‘‘ I want to find out a bit more about this condition of being a foreigner in this land. In a way the separation has something to offer: there’s a lot of ambiguity between East and West. There’s something in that ambiguity that’s worth investigating. As long as I can extract valuable things from that difference, then I appreciate being in that situation.’’
Clockwise from top left, Denise Keelebedford at work in Beijing; Alex Gibson; Michael Yuen and followers near People’s Square, Shanghai, in 2008; and a set of statues by Tony Scott